Sustainability is a hot topic among all industries and it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. For quite some time sustainability was viewed as something that’s overly complicated, very expensive, and an obstacle for economic progress.
The planet though doesn’t really agree with those assumptions. Climate change is obvious, and it demands that our society changes a lot, too. This doesn’t mean that we must endure massive economic losses. On the contrary. Deloitte says that if the right actions on climate are done, this could add as much as $3 trillion to the US economy by 2070. On the other hand, if nothing is done and things are left as they are now, the same economy could lose up to $14.5 trillion. For context, the US GDP for 2020 is around $20 trillion.
Sustainability is no longer a matter of “we could do it.” It’s an absolute must and if done right, it will bring economic value, too. The World Economic Forum also notes that there’s already strong sentiment among corporate leaders and many of them believe that sustainability efforts are their responsibility, but also a competitive advantage.
Sustainability and the data center
We’ve already talked a bunch about the various sustainability efforts taken by data centers and cloud service providers. It’s an important topic not only for the companies that provide these services, but also for everyone who uses them. As VentureBeat points out, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that data centers use around 1% of the total global energy consumption. BMC though says in 2021, data centers consumed 3% of global electricity. Either way, that’s a great result considering the massive increase in data usage over the past few years.
This is entirely thanks to the huge effort data center operators have and are making to ensure maximum efficiency of their facilities. It is also direct proof that you can build a “green” business and it won’t hurt profits. On the contrary, the IT industry is the leading sector when it comes to sustainability efforts, and it is still among the most profitable ones.
To offer sustainable services is no longer a matter of PR bragging rights. It’s becoming critically important to build products and services which use sustainable energy and are carbon neutral. In fact, many companies are now realizing that to be able to claim this, they must also make sure their entire supply chain and partners are also being sustainable. This is why it’s so key that the data centers we use also employ sustainable practices and continue to optimize and improve their energy consumption and sources – especially when we consider the fact that data usage will only continue to increase drastically. Therefore data centers must continue to lower their overall consumption, heat generation, etc. Luckily, the industry is very well aware of this and is working continuously to achieve these goals.
What can be done
There are many ways data centers (and the cloud) can improve their carbon footprint. Most of the focus falls on optimizations within the facilities. They can only go so far, though, so, there’s another key area where interest is building: data center decarbonization, meaning that not only should data centers stop producing carbon emissions, but they are actively helping to remove carbon from the atmosphere. According to Research and Markets this is possible via two main approaches.
The first one is renewable energy procurement. Here we have the increasingly popular power purchase agreements (PPAs). They allow data center operators to basically fund local green energy projects and in return they get a long-term deal for sustainable energy at lower – even fixed – prices.
The second approach is even more efficiency. This means innovations in cooling, management, automation, the use of AI, and more. Constant improvements in hardware also will help, but basically here, we must rely on the entire IT industry to sustain its efforts for the long run and constantly optimize all details. Also, data center operators can invest in technologies that improve the water consumption of their facilities and even return more clean water than they use. Another opportunity is to fund active decarbonizing projects in their area which develop and use technologies to take CO2 out of the air and thus lower the emissions.
Amazon famously said that moving to the cloud should be part of your sustainability strategy (meaning clients). The company plans to reach 100% renewable energy usage for all its Amazon Web Services (AWS) by 2025. It also notes that there are not enough opportunities for all cloud providers to reach the same goal. “If APAC organizations are able to move IT workloads to cloud data centers powered by 100% renewable energy, their carbon emissions savings could increase to 93% on average,” it says.
The company rightfully notes that climate change is a global challenge, but that doesn’t mean we have to start with massive projects. “The solutions can start small,” it says. And they should. Small steps are the keys to success and big changes.
The good example
Not all the sustainable efforts have to be directly tied to the optimization of data centers within their own footprint. There are other opportunities to harness the “waste” from data centers and use it for good. For example, using the heat to warm nearby buildings.
Depending on the type of data center and its location, up to 40% of all of its energy consumption goes towards cooling. What if we could use this heat for other purposes instead of constantly trying to cool it down? For example, instead of cooling it, just simply transfer the heat else where? Like to the buildings in close proximity?
It’s already happening and has been for years. Since at least 2017, Facebook has been using the heat from its data center in Denmark to warm 6,900 nearby homes. Amazon is using recycled heat from its data center in Dublin to do the same, and Apple is also doing it in Viborg. What’s even more ambitious is that there’s a project in Stockholm aiming to ensure that at least 10% of the entire city is being warmed by data center heat by 2035.
Of course, such projects do require additional investments like pumps, infrastructure connections, etc. It should also be noted that data centers alone can’t produce all the heat required: homes will still need other methods, however data center heat can supplement this and help reduce energy bills. But there are other options – we must be smart about it and choose the applications wisely, for example, to warm agriculture infrastructure, swimming pools and other facilities, GreenBiz notes. There are indeed a lot of possibilities.
The data center of the future is also the data center of the present. The industry is well aware of what must be done and now it must make it a reality. The next generation data centers are already under construction in many countries by a variety of companies. As Gartner says, initially this can indeed lead to higher direct costs for users, but they will be offset by the much lower side costs like less complexity and risk for the clients. But the added flexibility is definitely something that a lot of clients will love. For that to happen though, they will have to make some wise choices.
What should clients do
We have to go back to the business side of things. A lot has been said about what data center operators need to do, but what about data center clients? Fast Company has recently featured “5 questions business sustainability leaders should ask their cloud providers.” It notes that the World Economic Forum expects over 70% of new economic value created globally in the next decade to be enabled by digital platforms and business models.
Obviously, this means data and cloud usage will continue to rise and it will mean more energy usage, and more emissions if left unchecked. As noted earlier, business leaders recognize the importance of building and using a sustainable model for their companies. This includes the third-party services they use are also not contributing to the carbon footprint. You can already see a lot of companies making a point of using green energy for their business and soon this will extend to their sustainable digital services.
Clients are increasingly going to look for such services and are going to push providers to offer them. They will expect to see more transparent information about the data centers they are or could be using – what is the energy mix of these facilities and if they aren’t already 100% green, when will they reach this target? And data center operators had better have some good answers ready.
Clients will also want to know more about the locations and design of the data center. This will be easy for most providers as that information is usually already available on their websites. It’s important to note though that it will continue to have tremendous value, so don’t neglect it!.
Also expect clients to ask about your plans and ongoing efforts. For example, how are you further optimizing your data center? What technologies are you using, like automated maintenance, AI, machine learning, etc. and how do you handle end-of-life processes for hardware, e-waste, and all of those details. Remember: every detail matters when it comes to actual, true sustainability. It’s not enough to only say you do it and to show off your certifications for covered standards. Clients will want to know details and the more open you are the more they will trust you.
When you do all of this, clients will be able to confidently use your services and facilities. They will know the products they use, and the ones they create for their own clients are also truly sustainable, and this is how the data center becomes a foundation for sustainable products of all types and industries.
Check out the previous article from the same author, here: